Port Moody woman’s ratings of Skype backgrounds gets worldwide attention

This is part of a look back at pandemic stories I’ve written for The Tri-City News.

When Jessie Bahrey settles in to her Port Moody apartment to catch up on the nightly news, she’s not noting the latest federal assistance program being announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, or MSNBC correspondent John Heilemann’s analysis of the American response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She’s looking for the succulent that would add a pop of colour to the bookshelves behind Trudeau’s head or what fruit Heilemann has ripening in the bowl on his kitchen counter.
Bahrey, along with her Washington, D.C.-based partner, Claude Taylor, have become the pre-eminent Twitter authorities on what’s going on behind TV journalists, politicians, pundits and even a few scattered celebrities as they’re being interviewed from home or office on virtual platforms like Skype and Zoom.

For the office manager at Muldoon Greenhouses in Port Coquitlam, her newfound avocation started as a bit of a lark between the long-distance couple. But in just three weeks, their Room Rater Twitter account, @ratemyskyperoom, has grown to more than 133,000 followers, some of them the very targets of their sharp eyes and gentle humour.

“Everybody was talking about them but not doing the rating,” Bahrey said of their background critiques. “This was supposed to be a fun little thing we did for giggles.”

Shifting each other off according to their respective time zones and work schedules, the pair spend about 11 hours a day watching various American and Canadian news programs, taking screen grabs and dishing out their opinions. So far, they’ve posted more than 1,300 times. Neither has a background in interior design, although Bahrey admitted they’re both “news junkies.”

She said aside from the environs in which the interview is being conducted, they also pay attention to the lighting and camera angle.

Bahrey said it’s been illuminating to see how people used to working in controlled studios, where the lighting is perfect and backgrounds are designed to complement rather than distract, have adjusted to the more intimate and ad hoc settings of their homes.

Some, like former deputy prime minister John Manley, and New York Times correspondent Trip Gabriel, haven’t fared so well. Their low-angle perspectives that emphasize the blank walls and ceiling behind them make them look more like “hostage videos,” she said.

“Blink twice if we should call the police,” Bahrey wrote of Manley’s appearance.
Others show careful attention to detail.

Bahrey praised musician John Legend’s interview, conducted as he sat at his piano, a bookcase of Grammy awards to his left and the rest of his bright living room fading back into the distance.

“All the way back as far as you could see, it was just peaceful,” she said, adding the couple has purposely avoided doing too many celebrity critiques as they have the wealth and image self-awareness to ensure they have nice backgrounds.

Former First Ladies Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton also got raves.

Some targets of Room Rater’s reviews have even reached out through direct messages for tips. MSNBC’s Heilemann gave them a heads up to watch the fruit bowl as it evolved through several on-air appearances then culminated with a guest appearance by his great dane.

Will Reeve, a reporter on ABC’s Good Morning America, reached out to rebut the couple’s criticism of his no-pants appearance on the morning news magazine program.

Bahrey said seeing so many prominent and important people in their home environment, with all the distractions that can come with it, has helped humanize them.

“The biggest thing is they are very much like us,” she said. “Just because they’re famous, doesn’t mean they don’t struggle with the same things we do.”

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SCREENGRAB Port Moody’s Jessie Bahrey is paying close attention to backgrounds during Skype interviews on TV, including her own appearance on Global National.

Bahrey said the project has been a fun distraction from watching all the doom and gloom of growing infection numbers and death rates.

“It breaks up the bad news cycle,” she said. “It gives us a sense of community, that we’re all in this together.”

Pandemic resurrects Elvis

This is the first in a retrospective of stories from the COVID-19 pandemic. All appeared in The Tri-City News.

It took a pandemic to revive Elvis.

Or, at least, one of his impersonators, who’s resurrecting his career by bringing his act to neighbourhoods on lockdown because of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

For 30 years, Coquitlam’s Darren Lee was one of the best tribute artists of the famed performer who died in 1977.

In 1997, Lee won the World Elvis Championship in Memphis, Tennessee. He played Las Vegas for 11 years, followed by a four-year run in Maui.

But then, a couple of years ago, a business partnership went bad and — long story short — Lee left the island and found himself back in British Columbia.

“My self-motivation at that point was pretty nil,” he said, adding the lack of gigs eventually neccesitated taking a job driving deliveries for a restaurant supply company so he could get back on his feet.

Still, Lee felt a hunka hunka burning love to perform.

“Your voice has been singing for all these years, your legs are used to doing all these moves,” he said. “I’m older, but I’m not done.”

Opportunity knocked when Lee’s brother in Edmonton, Robin Kelly, launched Facebook Live performances of his own Elvis tribute act to weather the shutdowns of entertainment venues and large gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two collaborated weekly, accepting tips by PayPal.

But Lee’s upstairs neighbours weren’t as appreciative.

So he got in his car, popped some backing tracks into the stereo, rolled down the windows, balanced his phone on the console and went for a drive.

The rolling Facebook performances caught the attention of a friend in Port Coquitlam, who invited Lee to join her neighbourhood’s nightly 7 p.m. cacophony of appreciation for frontline workers. His guest appearance turned into an impromptu two-hour concert that only ended when his car’s battery died.

Even though the audience was no more than 10 people — all properly practising physical distancing — Elvis was back.

“It was the biggest audience I’ve had in months,” Lee said. “You want to get that applause. I thrive on it.”

Lee said he feels his temperature rising. In fact, he’s taking requests for guest appearances in other neighbourhoods. And his brain is flaming with plans to reinvigorate his career when the health emergency has passed.

“I’m an entertainer, it’s what I do,” he said.

Telling stories in a pandemic

The past four months have been: exhausting, exhilarating, challenging, frustrating, frightening, disorienting, illuminating and rewarding. They’ve also been frantic, difficult in many ways, actually easier in others. There have been days fuelled by adrenaline, others bogged by drudgery.

I guess that’s what it’s like to cover the biggest story of our lifetime, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initially, it seemed so remote as our newsroom localized stories of the respiratory virus sweeping through faraway cruise ships by chasing down family members of some of those trapped in seagoing quarantines.

Then, suddenly, it was upon us and we were being advised to prepare to begin working from home.

Those initial days were a blur of feeding constant updates to our website of postponements, then outright cancellations and closures. Like waves, they kept coming. We were telling the story of the dismantling of virtually aspect of our lives that we’ve come to take for granted. Every five minutes the news just seemed to get worse.

Along the way, we lost colleagues — our longtime editor and most senior reporter — as the pandemic also became an economic catastrophe. None of us were in the newsroom to say goodbye.

When we were first dispatched to our ad hoc home offices, most of us thought it would be for no more than a month, maybe six weeks. We cobbled together new systems for copy flow, dug out earbuds from desk drawers to be able to conduct all of our interviews by phone as well as hear each other during virtual editorial meetings. I tried to limit my own excursions out into the community shoot photos to an afternoon or morning a week.
Freebie stock photos became our visual tool of necessity, as much as that pained me as a photojournalist who’s felt the sting of our profession’s devaluation over the last decade.

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MARIO BARTEL/THE TRI-CITY NEWS The blossoms are in full bloom at Coquitlam’s Town Centre park, bringing the hopefullness of spring amidst the anxiety of the public health and economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once everything had been cancelled or closed, we shifted our coverage to tell the stories of coping: businesses finding new ways to serve their customers; educators and students navigating the unfamiliar world of remote learning; gyms going virtual; breweries doing deliveries; artists and musicians stretching their creative inclinations in unexpected directions; people figuring out ways to stay connected in a world of self-isolation.

The innovation, determination and resilience we encountered in the community every day was invigorating, a balm that countered the daily dose of bad news about infection rates, deaths and a grim prognosis for the future.

Now, as the smothering blanket of the public health emergency begins to slowly, carefully lift, we are telling the stories of what the new normal is going to look like for the next while: what it’s like to get a haircut; go out for a meal; participate in civic affairs; get a library book; visit a park. Every aspect of the communities we cover, the routines of daily life must now be viewed through the prism of the pandemic, which makes pretty much everything newsworthy.

It’s simultaneously daunting and energizing.

It’s introducing us to people and corners of our communities that we might not otherwise have ever known about. It’s challenging us to tell stories in new ways. It’s opening our minds to possibilities. It might even be wiping some of the jaundice from eyes that have seen so much over the years they’d become numb.

Over the next little while, I’ll be reprising some of my favourite stories of the past several months, a moment in our time, and my career, unlike any other.